Every year you read, “Well, this will be a big year for such-and-such prospect...” Perhaps they are coming off a bad season or two, maybe they are starting to get old in ‘prospect years,’ perhaps they are on the bubble for being considered prospects at all.
Rarely, though, have so many A’s prospects hit that ‘make or break year’ at the same time, where ‘fish’ appears to be meeting ‘cut bait’ right as the calendar turns to 2019...
“The Big (Glass) Three”
No fewer than four of the A’s top pitching prospects are trying to return from injury and re-establish their stock. However, we exclude A.J. Puk from our list of prospects for whom 2019 is an absolutely vital season.
Puk is returning from Tommy John surgery, so far with no set-backs, and this is normal, plus he is considered to be close to ‘major league ready’ if and when he returns to form. Whether things go more or less smoothly in 2019, Puk has time to regain his form and prove his good health.
The three others, though, are right-handers James Kaprielian, Grant Holmes, and Daulton Jefferies. 2019 will be an absolutely pivotal year for each, if for slightly different reasons.
For Kaprielian, he has to prove he can not only get on a mound but also stay on one, as Kaprielian has now pitched a grand total of 29.1 IP over 4 pro seasons, none since 2016. Though he claims to be healthy, pain-free, and ‘in the best shape of his life,’ it’s fair to wonder whether Kaprielian’s body will ever allow him to pitch. If he were to break down yet again in 2019, you would have to conclude it probably is just not meant to be. But if he bounces back healthy and is able to pitch all season, he has a chance to be one of the A’s top pitching prospects. So much is riding on this coming season for Kap.
For Holmes, it’s not that he has had so many injuries as it is the one he has had: shoulder problems. Elbow injuries are more common and with TJS involve a long recovery process, but the outlook is generally bullish. Shoulders simply don’t reliably come back strong, and Holmes’ recovery so far has been ‘one step forward, one step back’. Holmes does have time on his side, being the youngest (still 22) of all the top pitching prospects, but his status as a good prospect depends on rebounding in 2019 to show he can still throw hard, pitch effectively, and stay on the mound.
For Jefferies, he is closer to Puk in that he has really just had one major set-back leading to TJS and the long road to recovery. The difference is that at 23, Jefferies has yet to move past Stockton (all of 7 IP) and his entire minor league resume covers just 20.1 IP (compared to Puk’s 157.2 IP). So for Jefferies, not only does he need to show health and his old stuff, he also needs to master A, AA, and AAA. The A’s are still high on Jefferies, and will probably move him up the ladder quickly if he looks ready, but he is likely one setback away from losing his prospect status as he was never in the company of Kaprielian, Puk, or Holmes with regard to projected ceiling.
So that’s three pitchers of high pedigree for whom 2019 has a strong ‘make or break’ aspect to their season.
Partly because 2019 is his last option year, this will be a telling season for Barreto’s future with the A’s and as a top young talent. I have long opined that in order to reach his potential, Barreto will need to shorten his swing path to the ball and rediscover the all-fields line drive approach that dotted his teenage scouting reports. Selling out for power, and striking out like it’s going out of style, are not going to get Barreto where he needs to go even if it makes him a ‘dangerous’ hitter capable of putting up some decent numbers.
Color me excited to hear A’s hitting coach Darren Bush rave about Barreto shortening his swing this winter and attributing much of Barreto’s Winter League success to a new swing/approach. To me, this could be real and I can’t wait to see Barreto’s swing in spring training.
However, time will tell as to whether meaningful changes show up as Barreto faces big league pitchers. I have no doubt that Barreto can be at least an average defensive 2Bman and that his speed/power combination can impact a game. The question is whether he can make enough contact, draw enough walks and control the strike zone in a non-Crosby way, to be a good player rather than just a threat.
K-rates aren’t everything, but if Barreto opens at AAA keep a close eye on his K-rates in 2019 because at 20% he’s on his way to being a star, at 30% he’s ultimately the same guy he has been lately on his way to being a disappointment, and where he falls in between may reveal how big a change he has really made in his swing path and approach. I will guarantee you this: the ‘status quo’ won’t cut it at the big league level, so hopefully a real adjustment has been made. If it has, we could be looking at ‘the real deal,’ but even though he is only turning 23 later this month time is running out for Barreto to prove himself worthy of a big league job.
For Fowler, 2019 is key because he is at risk of being passed up by the more seasoned players around him. At the big league level, Ramon Laureano has all but moved Fowler off of CF in the team’s long-term plans, while Nick Martini, the far more accomplished hitter — though also far less talented athlete — likely has a hold on “LH platoon left fielder” when the team breaks camp.
This likely relegates Fowler to opening the season at AAA, where he may play CF but will be trying to claim LF for an A’s team that has Stephen Piscotty and Laureano under contract for the duration of Fowler’s 5 controlled seasons.
Meanwhile, Fowler hears footsteps from the next wave of outfielders in Oakland’s system, from the less flashy but very steady Tyler Ramirez (career .374 OBP) to the raw-but-electric talents of teenagers Austin Beck and Lazaro Armenteros, soon to be nipping on the heels of the Dustin Fowlers of the world.
For Fowler, whose quick bat, surprising power, and electric speed make him an intriguing prospect, he has to prove that is more than a hacker. The good news is that Fowler brings a lot of strengths and doesn’t have too many different weaknesses in his profile — he should be a plus LFer, he can hit for a high average, and he has 20/20 potential.
The bad news is that poor plate discipline is not one of the weaknesses that most often improves over time. In 6 minor league seasons Fowler’s BB rate is about 4.4% and it has been pretty steady throughout (never more than 5.0% in any season). In his Oakland stint, it was 3.9%.
If Fowler cannot improve his plate discipline in 2019, he is likely to fall out of the A’s long term plans as he is looking up at Martini and looking back at a slew of prospects who have much to offer. There are not a lot vacancies in Oakland’s 2019-23 outfield, so if Fowler does not gain traction this season he is losing it. As a prospect you rarely run in place.
So there are 5 players for whom 2019 may tell the tale of their future with Oakland, or anywhere. Every season is important, in some way, for every player — but for these “Fab-or-not 5,” the stakes seem just a bit higher.
Which Of These Players Will Have The Biggest Breakthrough In 2019?
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